In this edition of "Blood, Sweat and Cheers," Jeremy Roenick talks about growing up with and playing alongside Tony Amonte.
Just before the National Hockey League trade deadline in 1994, I got a call from Bob Pulford, our general manager with the Blackhawks. I had been playing in Chicago for a few years, loving every minute, but now I was being asked about another player: Tony Amonte. He was with the New York Rangers, he was available, Pulford knew I knew Tony, and he wanted to know what I thought.
It didn’t take me long to answer. “Pully,” I said, “if you can get this kid, grab him ASAP. Him and me on a line together would be sick.”
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Fortunately for Tony and me, and the Blackhawks, Pulford made the deal. He got Tony and Matt Oates from the Rangers in exchange for Brian Noonan and Stephane Matteau. Tony wasn’t getting along in New York with Mike Keenan, who was their coach and had coached me in Chicago. But when Tony came to the Blackhawks, there were no problems.
He and I knew each other as kids back in Massachusetts, and we had played together on the same line at Thayer Academy, where we won a couple championships, so it felt like old times for us. I was his center, he was a left shot who played the right wing, and it was like riding a bicycle again after not doing it for years.
I just wish we could have been together longer in Chicago, but I left after the 1995-96 season, which is another story. That didn’t stop him, though. He had a fabulous career with the Blackhawks. After the 1994-95 season, which was cut short because of the lockout, he had 31 goals the next year, our last as linemates. Then he just kept on going, scoring at least 30 times a season; three times, he had 40 or more goals. He was a real sniper, with a quick release and a really accurate shot. And was he fast. Once he took off with those first couple short, strong strides, he was gone.
Amazingly, Tony broke his left femur in ninth grade. That’s the biggest bone in your body, and it set Tony back a year at Thayer. But when he healed, he came back as an even faster skater than he was before the injury. That tells you a lot about Tony. He was a worker. When we were at Thayer, we noticed a lot of scouts coming to our games. We never talked much about the NHL, but that’s where we wanted to end up. I wound up getting drafted earlier than him and going straight to Chicago.
He was picked in the fourth round by the Rangers and played two years at Boston University, but when he made it to the NHL, he made it big. He had 35 goals for the Rangers his first season, 1991-92, and it was no surprise. He was a devoted person, and it came from his background. Tony didn’t come from a lot of money, and his dad had a heart condition when he was young, so there were no silver spoons in Tony’s family. He worked to put himself through school and never stopped working at hockey.
I’ve played a lot of places with a lot of guys, but Tony was the best linemate I ever had. We got along great, and so did our wives: He met Laurie at Thayer, where I met Tracy. On the ice, we had that sixth sense about where each other would be and when he passed you the puck, it was right there on the button. Very smart, and a great leader. Everybody in the locker room loved him. I’m not sure that was the case with me. I was brash and cocky, and Tony always said he would leave the talking to me. But he was funny, and he had the greatest laugh ever. Kind of a loud, piercing cackle. We went to a movie, “Dumb and Dumber,” in Winnipeg. He laughed so hard that pretty soon, everybody in the theater was laughing at him laugh.
Tony really did it all in the NHL. He became captain of the Blackhawks, which was well-deserved. He played in two Olympics, 1998 and 2002, for the United States. He was in five NHL All-Star Games. Considering his accomplishments, he could have been in more. But he wasn’t the type of guy to call much attention to himself, and as a result, he was underrated, underappreciated. But he never complained. A few months after he was traded to Chicago, Matteau scored a huge goal in the playoffs for the Rangers and then they went on to win the Stanley Cup. “It figures,” Tony said, laughing at himself.
When I scored the last goal ever in that great old building, Chicago Stadium, Tony assisted. It was Game 4 of the conference quarterfinal series against Toronto in 1994. He put the puck on my stick in overtime, and we won 4-3. Unfortunately, we were shut out in the last two games and lost the series. But we wound up together again with the Philadelphia Flyers a few years later, and our other linemate was Alex Zhamnov, who the Blackhawks got when I was traded to Phoenix. Funny how that happens.
In 1999, the Coyotes were in Chicago for a game. I was having some personal problems. I was frustrated and I swung my stick at Tony. He got real bloody, and I got a five-game suspension. I’m writing a book and I’ll have more to say about it there. But it could have been anybody. Tony was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and I just lost it. We’ve stayed friends and we keep in touch.
Every once in a while, when I get through arguing with Mike Milbury on a hockey telecast, Tony will send me a text. He’s back home now, coaching at our old school, Thayer. Could he coach in the NHL someday? With Tony’s instincts and work ethic, absolutely. He played on a few Chicago teams that didn’t make the playoffs, but it wasn’t his fault. He was the go-to guy.
I hope Blackhawks fans realize how good he was. They’re pretty smart. I think they do.